Eric On Believing Despite Not Being Able to Explain the Atonement

I'm producing several posts called: "Reality Check: What Must Be the Case if Christianity is True?" In a recent one I wrote: "17) That although there is no rational explanation for why Jesus had to die on the cross to atone for our sins, his death atoned for our sins." From this a discussion ensued between Eric, who is a Christian Ph.D. student, and me. It's interesting to see where discussions lead and I want to highlight this one out of the many other issues that were raised in the comments.

Eric said
I don't find this objection problematic at all.

John is a writer. He communicates with words, phrases and sentences. Communication with words, phrases and sentences presupposes that words, phrases and sentences have *meaning*, but anyone who has studied philosophy of language will tell you we have not figured out how words, phrases and sentences mean anything. (We have a host of competing theories, just as we have competing theories of the atonement.)

We thus get:

(17') We cannot explain how words, phrases and sentences mean anything, but John writes books, so words, phrases and sentences mean something.

Does this stop you from writing?

That aside, any reasoning of the form, "We don't have a rational explanation for X, so either not X or probably not X" is just blatantly fallacious. (And, clearly, at least "probably not X" is implied by John's post.)
John said:
Okay Eric, a hidden premise is that if God wants us to believe in him then we should be able to rationally explain more things than we can, for the more we cannot understand about him the less we think he exists. The atonement is one belief that cannot be rationally explained. So is the Trinity. So is the incarnation. So also is personal identity after death. So also is timeless bodiless existence.

If God wants us to believe his ways are reasonable and good then we must be able to know enough about his ways to think they are reasonable and good. After all, he created our minds and supposedly tells us to use them, so we would expect that when we do we could understand enough of his ways to know they are reasonable and good
Eric said...
I agree with this in general, but it's not, it seems to me, easy to apply in each particular case. For example, considering (17) for the moment, is it the case that understanding the 'mechanics' of the atonement is a necessary condition for rational belief in God? I don't see how that's a tenable position.

I'm reminded of what Professor Peter Kreeft has said about the Eucharist: Jesus didn't say, "Take this and understand," but "take this and eat." Don't get me wrong: I'd prefer to understand too. But the question is, Is it necessary (in any particular case, with respect to the rationality of a belief) to understand? (This is true of any worldview: consider all the things physicalists don't understand, but have no problem accepting, about the world.)
At this point several good comments were devoted to Eric's Catholicism, but leaving that aside...

John W. Loftus said...
Eric there are other considerations. When it comes to understanding something there must be evidence that there is something to understand, a known fact that needs an explanation, if you will. With the atonement there is no known fact to understand, but a mere assertion that Jesus atoned for sins. If no sense can be made of an assertion without a basis in fact then it is most likely a false assertion. And as I said the more you cannot explain or understand what you think is the case then the more that what you believe is false, especially when there are no known facts to explain.

Your notion of God explains everything doesn't it? But when you have an explanation that explains everything then it explains too much. It ends up not being an explanation at all.
Eric said...
Here's the data it seems to me we're working with (note, these aren't 'known facts' in the strong sense of the phrase -- few things are, as you well know -- but they are what Christians believe to be true, and which they have reasons to believe to be true):

There is a God. God is the creator and sustainer of all that exists. Human beings exist in the image of God, in terms of reason and will, and thus stand in a special relationship to God. There is a right way to stand in relationship to God, and a wrong way, and we're standing in the wrong relationship to God. God became man to right this wrong relationship, and he did it as it has always been done -- with a sacrifice. In the past, priests offered sacrifices, but in this case God is both the priest and the sacrifice. This sacrifice, which provides us the means of standing in the proper relationship to God, is what we call the atonement.

I haven't 'explained' the atonement there, but have provided the data we're working with. You of course dispute each and every piece of data, and that's fine. But if you want to discuss whether the atonement makes sense, you can do it by either (1) denying the data, or (2) presupposing the data for the sake of argument and going on from there. With respect to (17), you seemed to be taking the latter approach, and it was *that* argument I was criticizing. If you want to now approach the question with (1), well we're back to the most fundamental questions in this whole debate (why think God exists, etc.).
"Your notion of God explains everything doesn't it?"
Well, of course. God as most informed Christians understand him -- that is, as the pure act of "to be" itself -- *must* explain everything.
Ignoring Eric's last comment because it is as I said, I continued.

John W. Loftus said...
Eric, I don't know where you stand on the atonement. Apparently you agree with me that there isn't a rational explanation for it, as you might admit for the problem of evil, the Trinity and the incarnation. At some point the lack of a rational explanation for these and other beliefs of yours would be fatal to your faith. No one can say in advance how much incomprehensible mystery you can allow and still believe. But that is simply way over the top for me especially when there is a corresponding lack of evidence to believe.
Eric said...
This is a somewhat glib response (I can't remember where I read it), but there's nonetheless something to it: I find the mysteries and the questions that belief in God evokes to be more satisfying than the the answers non-belief provides. (One could also refer to Newman here: "Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt." He's right.) That's true in part because we all have our mysteries: it's not as if it's a choice between mysteries and questions on the one hand, and perfect understanding on the other. The naturalist/physicalist faces mysteries as serious as those of any theist. You've said something similar in the past, John (it may have been on "The Things That Matter Most"), when you suggested that whatever the truth about reality is, it's absurd. You have your mysteries and I have mine, and we both have to find ways to deal with them.
John W. Loftus said...
Eric, yes, but keep in mind that the choices before us are emphatically not between your particular brand of Christianity and atheism. For some reason it appears you forget this. I don't. What you've done is to isolate your modern Catholic Christianity as the only religious choice before you and you contrast that option with unbelief. You know differently but you don't seem to take that into account when assessing what is the case. All affirmative claims have anomalies and mysteries that we must all put on the back burner. But your choice is emphatically not between Catholicism and atheism. The options are myriad and anyone of these other choices could say the same things you just did and keep on believing. Because I understand this I argue that the default position is agnosticism. You ought therefore become an agnostic, like I am. But agnosticism naturally pushes us toward atheism since they are almost twins. Having denied all extraordinary religious claims the agnostic simply concludes no extraordinary claims have any support. Having denied all supernatural explanations and beings by a process of elimination the agnostic simply denies they exist. A person like that is an atheist, a skeptic of all such claims.
Eric said...
John, I would agree *if* (1) it were the case that all other alternatives were equally well supported (such that they in effect canceled one another out), and (2) I didn't have good reasons for thinking that the beliefs I do hold are well justified.

I see no reason to think (1) obtains: for example, I have concluded that any type of Christianity that teaches sola scriptura is logically self refuting (since scripture doesn't teach sola scriptura). This example alone, if it holds, and if Catholicism isn't similarly self defeating, refutes (1).

But even if I cannot refute (1) -- and there are of course myriad religions I have never heard of, let alone studied or refuted -- I'm still not in the religiously equivalent position of Buridan's ass if (2) is false. And, of course, I have concluded that (2) is false, since I think I have good reasons for concluding that Catholicism is true. Take any scientific theory as an example: given underdetermination, we know there are countless possible, and empirically indistinguishable, alternative theories, most of which no one has ever refuted, because no one has ever formulated them. But it doesn't follow that we're not justified in accepting theories we think we have good reasons to accept.

So, your argument seems to me to presuppose that (1) and (2) obtain, and I see no good reasons to think they do
John said...
Eric, you have an unjustifiably high regard for your own reasoning abilities given that (a) we are all products of our times, that is, when and where we're born; and b) there is no evidence that can decisively answer these religious disputes.

It's a shame someone like you cannot factor (a) and (b) into your equations and come to agnosticism.

How do you really know the alternatives are not well-supported?

How can you conclude that people around the world are stupid when compared to you such that they do NOT have good reasons for what they accept? Have you ever tried to convince them otherwise? Try it.
Eric said...
John, you've spoken out on a number of moral issues on this blog. But you must have an unjustifiably high regard for your reasoning abilities given a) and b). The same could be said for political opinions, scientific opinions, etc. all of which are subject to a) and b). Do you see the problem here? Life *requires* us to make sundry decisions for which we have incomplete information -- information that is often ineluctably colored by our cultural prejudices -- and during which we use fallible reasoning processes. How many moral, political, etc. issues can *you* answer *decisively*? Few, if any at all, correct? But you still hold them, don't you? You'd even be willing to give your life to uphold some of them, wouldn't you? You can't demonstrate much more commitment to the truth of a claim than that.
"How can you conclude that people around the world are stupid when compared to you such that they do NOT have good reasons for what they accept?"
John, you know better than this. A false belief can be held rationally by a remarkably intelligent person, so it's decidedly not the case that my potion entails that I conclude those who disagree with me are 'stupid.' You're confusing the truth value of a claim here with its justification.
John W. Loftus said...
Eric, so what, you're rational. Big deal. I am too. Rationality is not enough. Why can't you be rational enough to conclude this and that given the human propensity to accept and defend what we were all raised with and given the propensity to defend what we prefer to believe that we need some hard evidence to accept something? Otherwise we will be building intellectually coherent castles in the sky that never have to touch down on solid ground?

It will do you no good at all to point out I have the same intellectual difficulties. You must still deal with your problems regardless of whether or not I do. But in fact I do, and I think I'm a lot more consistent than you are. I'm trying to be skeptical of everything consistently. You are not. I'm rational enough about these difficulties to be an agnostic. That's the most rational conclusion given what we know about human rationality.
Eric said...
John, with all due respect, you are decidedly *not* in any meaningful sense an agnostic when it comes to moral claims. I could point to post after post after post to prove it. Yet your moral conclusions are just as subject to a) and b) as my religious conclusions are -- perhaps more so. Therefore, on the contrary, it seems to me as if I'm more consistent than you are here, since I recognize that we all must make commitments to the truth of sundry propositions that are subject to a) and b), while you claim that you're a consistent skeptic. In fact, few things are more difficult than being a consistent skeptic: I know of no one in the history of philosophy, from Pyrrho to Hume to Rorty, who has ever succeeded at that.
John said...
Well, I most definitely am agnostic about some moral claims and I'm most definitely not agnostic about other claims. It depends on the moral claim.

I maintain that extraordinary faith claims need a lot of evidence for them and that Christianity is not supported by the available evidence nor can it make any rational sense of many of its doctrines. I maintain that because of (a) and (b) people will defend what they are raised to believe and what they prefer to believe. Because of these facts they should be reasonable enough to become agnostics about extraordinary claims until there is sufficient evidence for them.

What is there about morality that is an extraordinary claim? There is some evidence needed, yes, for some claims. We have morals. They evolve. They are important to us. Want to know why? Because I want to live in some peace and security and pursue my goals unhindered by others in a community of people who help each other. Life is best lived that way. How do I know? Because I do not want people to steal from me or rape my daughter. My God what are you looking for here? I DO NOT NEED ANY EVIDENCE TO SAY TO AN ANNOYING PERSON OR THIEF OR RAPIST TO GET OUT OF MY FACE! I don't want him there. And I wish to grant everyone that same moral/political right or else I cannot claim that right myself.

Geese 'O Pete, Eric.

Eric, when it comes to basic ethics most people agree. Basic ethics are the kinds of behavior that are expected from people when there are no dilemma's or extenuating circumstances, like tell the truth, be kind to others, share with the needy, treat others the way you want treated, and so forth. Almost all ethicists will argue for these things. C.S. Lewis's book Abolition of Man shows we have these shared basic morals. So what's there to be agnostic about them? Nothing I can see. It makes life better for all of us. If I have to defend why these ethics makes life better for all of us with you then something is wrong. Suffice it to say with Aristotle that holistic happiness (eudomia) is an end in and of itself.

Our disputes arise when it comes to dilemma ethics, that is, what behavior we should expect from people when they have to make a choice between two different basic ethical obligations (i.e., don't lie vs save a life, and so forth).

What's very interesting to me is that when facing these moral dilemmas there is no way in advance to predict what behavior will be recommended by ethicists who hold to different meta-ethical foundations in all cases.


Ken Pulliam said...


I think there is a bigger problem than just not being able to explain the mechanics of the atonement. It would be one thing if the atonement simply transcended reason but it is another thing when it contradicts reason. At least in the case of the Penal Sub. Theory, we have an innocent person suffering and paying the penalty owed by the guilty. That contradicts our sense of justice. And if our sense of justice comes from being made in the image of God, which most christians believe, then we have God contradicting himself.

While this problem is especially acute for the PST, it is also a problem for the other theories because in each theory we have salvation being accomplished through the death of an innocent man.

Anonymous said...

Ken, interesting point. Would you want to say the problem of evil, the Trinity and the incarnation all involve contradictions for the same reasons too?

Anonymous said...

I feel that you are spinning in circles of sorts. Yes, most people do accept basic ethics, but then again, most people also believe in some sort of god, whether Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Pantheism, Polytheism. Nearly 2/3 of the world claim to be Christians, and another 20% claim to be Muslims. Thats nearly 90% of the world's population believing in a monotheistic god. But does that mean that they are right, or that this is evidence for their view? Of course not. So by appealing to the "majority" accepting basic ethics, this is not a rational reason to give for accepting them at all.

Apart from everybody else believing them, what is your reason for holding to these, since "everybody else is doing it" is never a good answer, especially not for someone whose goal is to be rational?

You also said that the reason you hold unwaveringly to some of your morals is "Because I want to live in some peace and security and pursue my goals unhindered by others in a community of people who help each other. Life is best lived that way." So you believe these because you want to? Isn't that what you were just criticizing Eric for? So you fall into the same problem you accuse him of.

It seems that you ignore these things, and maybe this is because this is what makes you comfortable, and what you prefer to believe. Which is often why people believe things, but you can't act like you don't fall into that category as well, at least not when you use reasoning like this.

Anonymous said...

gnosiskaisophia said... "Nearly 2/3 of the world claim to be Christians..."

My understanding is Christians are just under then 1/3 of the worlds population.

I understand they may be under reported in China, but not by 2 billion.

Lazarus said...

Two thirds, one third - re-assessing stats for Jesus. Its been done before.

zenmite AKA Marshall Smith said...

Some interesting stats:

This is from Christianity Today:

33% of the world's population is considered to be Christian.
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (2006)

Top 3 Largest National Christian Populations:
USA - 224,457,000 (85%)
Brazil - 139,000,000 (93%)
Mexico - 86,120,000 (99%) (2005)

Number of Christian Denominations:
There are approximately 38,000 Christian denominations in the world. This statistic takes into consideration cultural distinctions of denominations in different countries.
World Christian Encyclopedia (2001)

The Major Denominations:
Roman Catholic - The Roman Catholic Church denomination is the largest Christian group in the world today with more than a billion followers constituting about half of the world's Christian population.

Eastern Orthodox - Approximately 225 million people worldwide are Orthodox Christians.

Protestant - There are approximately 500 million Protestants in the world.

This is from a 2007 Foreign Policy survey:

Fastest Growing World Religions:

Islam ranked first, with a growth rate of 1.84%. High birth rates are a major reason.

The Bahai Faith comes in second, with a growth rate of 1.7 percent. Unlike Islam, however, which boasts 3.3 billion adherents, Bahais currently only count 7.7 million members

Sikhism comes in third, with a growth rate of 1.62 percent and 25.8 million followers.

Jainism, a religion many Americans have never even heard of, ranks fourth in terms of growth, with a rate of 1.57%. It’s 5.9 million followers live in India, the UK, Kenya, and the U.S., among other places.

Hinduism takes the fifth spot with a growth rate of 1.52%. Indian birth rates are the real fuel behind this rise.

Christianity didn’t make the top 5, but did come in sixth place with a growth rate of 1.38%, most of it seen in the Southern hemisphere.

United States' fastest growing religion is “no religion”.

Chuck said...

Great post John and I really enjoyed this conversation with Eric. He seems to be one of the most extreme examples of cognitive bias I have ever seen. It borders on the tragic.

shane said...

I can to extent agree with Eric in regards to people being able to believe something even though they may not be able to understand it.

I mean....some people believe aliens have visited the earth, although they may have no idea how it is possible for another intelligent life to cross the vast expanse of space from a distant star that could possibly sustain life!

It follows that we dont really have to understand the mechanics of something in order to believe it.

But there is a difference between beliefs that are rational, and beliefs that defy rationality.

Christians insist the atonement is true, they insist it was necessary....yet....they cannot rationally explain to us just "how" it is true, or "how" it is necessary!

Christians cannot give us a reasonable answer how it is acceptable for one to stand in place of another as far as justice goes.
They cannot reasonably explain how Jesus only had to die a temporary physical death as payment, when the price of sin is suppossed to be eternal?

The atonement, as well as the trinity, simply go against our human logic. And for any human to assert these things as true and necessary, is to go against their own rationality and ask others to do so as well!

God gives us intelligent, thinking, calculating minds, then asks us to throw our natural conclusions aside in order to accept Him????

Nope, dont think so!

shane said...

The whole thing with 2/3 of the world claiming to be christian means nothing when they all belong to so many different denominations!

So what if they claim to be christian, they also claim their specific doctrine in the correct one and all the others have it wrong.
There is also more then just denominations, there is also forms. Jehovahs witness and Mormons also use the bible!

In reality, 2/3 is not the actual amount of agreable believers. They actually have to be broken down into sub-religions/faiths!!!!

When we do this, the numbers actually testify against the validity of christianity rather then for it!

Anonymous said...

Apologies if the numbers were wrong, but the point still holds. Appealing to the majority is not good reason. So I am not defending the numbers as a reason to believe, but as terrible reasoning to use them as a reason. Even if 99% of people believed in a god/gods, that would not be in itself a good reason to believe.

As to the actual point, there have been no responses. The point was that John's reasoning for accepting the morals and basic ethics that he does is 1) because he wants to/finds them comforting, and 2) because they are nearly universally accepted. Both of which are reasons that he just accused Eric of using, saying that they are bad reasons.

GearHedEd said...

My objection to Eric's position (and you can see it in "Reality Check 17") is that he relies on Byzantine philosophy and outdated apologetics to point him to his conception of God.

I have no objection to raw honesty, but his reasoning strikes me as tortured.

Chuck said...

There is a great post at Jerry Coyne's blog "Why Evolution is True" which shows the intellectual bankruptcy of Eric's favorite pretense, a Thomist orientation.

Did you know Eric's beloved Catholic Church did not modify its Aristotlean cosmology until 1992 because a Thomist perspective would not admit a helio-centric universe?

I think we can see the cost of a Thomist world-view right there.

GearHedEd said...


In earlier arguments with Eric, I pointed out that Aquinas could be nothing but biased, since

a) he was a Dominican monk
b) he lived in the mid-1200's (some 300 years BEFORE Copernicus), and
c) if he had come to any other conclusion than God, they would have burned him at the stake as a heretic and none of us would have ever heard of him.

Therefore (I told Eric), we should throw out Aquinas as an authoritative epistemology: he was necessarily biased.

I went further and pointed out that the Vatican didn't forgive Galileo until very recently, and that the reason the Vatican even HAS an observatory is so they don't get scooped like that again.

GearHedEd said...

I forgot to note why this:

"b) he lived in the mid-1200's (some 300 years BEFORE Copernicus),"

is important (It's obvious to me, anyway) is because Aquinas was reasoning from an erroneous conception of the universe.